Celebrating ‘Hoosiers’

Iconic Communities, Movies, On the Road, Sports, Traditions
on November 1, 2011
David Mudd Built in the 1920s, the Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Ind., sat vacant for two decades until a Hollywood film crew came calling.

Basketball sneakers squeak and a ball thumps on the hardwood floor as players race to the hoop in the historic Hoosier Gym-where the 1986 movie Hoosiers was filmed-in Knightstown, Ind. (pop. 2,182).

Cheerleaders dressed in 1950s uniforms chant "one more basket" as the final seconds tick away on the electronic scoreboard. When the game horn sounds, the crowd goes wild as the Hickory Huskers defeat the Terhune Tigers 104-96 during the sixth annual Hoosiers' Reunion All-Star Classic.

"This is Hoosiers basketball at its finest," says Mervin Kilmer, 81, president of the Hoosier Gym Board. "I don't think there are many gyms left in the world like this."

It's been 26 years since actors Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper and a squad of basketball players arrived in Knightstown to make the movie Hoosiers, but townspeople continue to pay tribute to the enduring sports classic and the gymnasium where much of the movie was filmed.

"It's like stepping back in time to walk in here," says Bob Bitler, 90, a World War II veteran holding the American flag for the American Legion Color Guard that opened the June game. "We're proud of the movie because it shows that you should always try to do your best, even if it seems you can't possibly be successful."

Set during the 1951-1952 school year, when all Indiana high schools regardless of enrollment size competed in one state basketball championship tournament, Hoosiers is about the small-town Hoosier Huskers who won the state championship. The story is based loosely on a Cinderella team from tiny Milan (Ind.) High School that toppled big-city powerhouse teams to win the 1954 state championship.

"I wasn't even born back then, but my grandmother was and she remembers it," says cheerleader Morganne McRoberts, 16. "It's neat to see how it used to be. I'm really glad they saved this old gym."

In 1920, Knightstown High School had no gymnasium. Basketball games were played in Bell's Hall above Jolly's Drugstore and in the basement of the local Presbyterian church. It was clear to townspeople that the school needed a gym. More than 250 private citizens and local businessmen pitched in to raise more than $14,400 to build one.

On Dec. 1, 1922, construction of the gym was completed. Within four years, the school board made the final payment and took full control of the building. By 1966, however, the gym had become obsolete. A new facility was built, and the old gym was closed that April. For the next two decades, the gym sat vacant. No one stepped forward to buy it.

Then a Hollywood film crew began looking for a site for the movie Hoosiers. The old gym was perfect for Hickory High's home basketball court. "The movie people didn't want to fix it up," Kilmer recalls. "They wanted it to look like it did."

When Hoosiers proved a hit, fans wanted to see the gym where the movie was filmed. In 1993, a local preservation group-Historic Knightstown Inc.-decided to restore the building for use as a community center. Today, the Hoosier Gym is owned by the city and serves as a multiuse venue for basketball leagues, birthday parties, concerts, meetings and weddings. Volunteers staff the facility and offer free tours of the gym and basketball memorabilia on display.

People travel to Knightstown from around the world to see the Hoosier Gym. And once a year, the historic hardwood echoes with a full house of fans as Hoosier hysteria comes alive with some of Indiana's top basketball players. The best senior boy and girl players square off as the Hickory Huskers and the Terhune Tigers. While the soundtrack from Hoosiers fills the 650-seat gym, the teams take to the floor clad in retro satin uniforms.

"To be able to play here is awesome," says Jordan Hulls, 21, who played in the Hoosiers' Reunion All-Star Classic in 2009 when he was a senior attending Bloomington (Ind.) South High School. Now an Indiana University junior, Hulls plays guard for the real-life Hoosiers. "When you walk in here and feel the atmosphere, you can understand why Hoosiers love basketball."